Sermon Sunday, November 27, 2011

First Sunday of Advent

Mark 13:24-37

Hurry Up And Wait!”   

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio

Rev. Allen V. Harris, preacher

To see the video of this sermon, go to:  http://youtu.be/9Ueypr-qLRw

There is no podcast this week.  My apologies for any inconvenience.

There’s waiting.

And there is w-a-i-t-i-n-g!

Waiting is a fairly common human occurrence.  We wait at the doctor or dentist’s office for our appointment.  We wait in line at the theater or amusement park.  We wait for the results of the CAT scan or the pregnancy test.  We wait to hear about whether or not we got the job at the place we applied for employment or if we received the passing grade on the test we took at school.  We wait for lots of things.

And yet, in our post-modern, technologically advanced, Generation XYZ world we don’t wait for as much nor for as long as our parents and grandparents waited.  We don’t wait as long for our relatives or friends to visit from across the country or world.  We don’t wait as long to hear about or actually see the rise and fall of world leaders and governments.  We don’t wait as long to get that deep and impassioned letter from our beloved who is away serving our country in the military or on an overseas job assignment.  We don’t wait for our film to get developed and our pictures to be processed.  (Wait, what did he just say?  “Developing film” and “processing pictures?”  What’s that?)

So, at best, waiting is a mixed art form these days.  But waiting still has to be distinguished from other similar-but-different facets of life.  Waiting is very much like desire.  Desire may include waiting, but desire is something different.  Desire is when we wait with anticipation for something we may need, but most certainly something we want.  Desire involves the senses, and oftentimes presents itself as a physical craving. Desire may be for that which is good and worthy and decent, or it could be for that which is hedonistic, selfish, or outright evil.  Playwright George Bernard Shaw once famously said, “Life contains but two tragedies. One is not to get your heart’s desire; the other is to get it.”

The gospel text appointed for this, the first Sunday of Advent, the season of preparation for the once-again-coming of Christ at Christmas, is somber and even alarming.  Mark 13 offers up apocalyptic vision from Jesus placed very near the time of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion by the Roman authorities with the help of the religious establishment.  It promises a creation-altering moment when the “Son of Man” will return “in the clouds.”  It offers an allegory of a fig tree in spring as a way of urging us to get ready for the Son of Man to return.  And it places before us a demanding call to “beware, keep alert… keep awake” for we do not know the time when he will come.

This is waiting with a healthy mixture of both desire and dread, and a call to make our lives better in this time of waiting so that we will not be found wanting when Jesus Christ comes back.  And that is why this text is placed here at the beginning of the season of Advent.  It is to remind us that while we innocently prepare our homes, churches, schools, and places of employment for holiday celebrations, many in remembrance of the original birth of the Christ child, that this can and should also be a time of honest reflection on our lives and examination of our hearts.  The church forbearers who crafted this tradition wanted us to have, year after year, the chance to “get ready” and “get our things in order” for the second coming of Christ.

But this leads me to the other aspect of waiting that substantially distinguishes it from other kinds of waiting.  Hope involves waiting, and certainly may include desire.  But hope differentiates itself from either simply waiting or from desiring in several ways.  Before I get to that, let me share something that I found very helpful in this distinction.

I’m reading the magazine Reflections produced by the Yale Divinity School, where the Rev. Jim Schimmel attended.  He gave me his copy of it, in part, because this particular issue is devoted to discussing the connections between theology and technology, particularly social media.  In it is an interview with Kwok Pui Lan, professor of Christian Theology & Spirituality at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. She discusses the difference between a “bazaar mind” and a “cathedral mind.”  Please hear me correctly.  I am saying “bazaar” as in a marketplace, not as in strange or weird.  Most of us think of a bazaar when we imagine an ancient Middle Eastern city where all the wooden stands with vendors hawking their wares and big earthen pots sitting around filled with food and goods to be sold.  Hollywood gave us a most memorable image when Indiana Jones is chased through a bazaar in the movie, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

So, Kwok notes that we live in a networked world that increasingly is like a “bazaar mind,” where, like a bazaar, it is a marketplace of ideas where we shop from place to place.  There is no obligation to stay and no commitment to buy.  She points out that the moving from text to text on a cell phone, page to page on a computer screen, e-mail to e-mail in our in-box gets us into the habit of linking knowledge, or at least information, quickly.  In contrast, the “cathedral mind” takes patience, learning, concentration, and years of training.  It acknowledges that the human mind is complex, multi-layered, with immense depth.

Kwok does not judge one “mind” over the other.  She simply asks whether or not we lose something very important, and by implication, deeply spiritual, if we fail to ever develop the “cathedral mind.”  She notes that some of the greatest achievements of human civilization both require and nurture a “cathedral mind:” literature, art, and music for example.  And, most importantly for our conversation today, she notes that a cathedral mind both requires and nurtures waiting, emptiness, openness, which is almost impossible in a “bazaar mind.” (1)

So, here is where our Advent themes of waiting and hoping come together.  The writer of the book of Hebrews reminds us that this thing called faith is the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1).  If so, then our faith requires us to develop, nurture, and practice the discipline of waiting.  But not simply waiting, but waiting with a deep and abiding hope, even if we cannot see nor taste nor touch nor smell the outcome.  We must redevelop our “cathedral minds” where we let the hope for God to carry us through the silence, the wonder, the pondering, the waiting.

The key difference between simply waiting and hope, though, is in relationships.  We wait for all kinds of things, occasions, and people, but do not necessarily have a relationship with any of them.  But we only hope in relationship to the one for whom we wait, or the one who will bringing us what we are hoping for.  When we hope, we are building on some level of trust in the one who will bring us that for which we are hoping.  Hope is built on relationships that last over time.  That is why it is hard for children to “hope” and why it is easy for them to be frustrated by the “waiting” and enamored with the “desiring.”  They have not had the time to build up the trust that is required for hope.

And so, this Advent season, we will be tempted to get caught up in the waiting.  Whether it is the waiting in line overnight before so-called “Black Friday” to get the $199 flat screen plasma television or waiting for the over-the-top Holiday party at the boss’s house or the waiting for Santa Clause to come with bags overflowing with toys.  But those of us who have developed a relationship of trust with the One who created all things, the One who redeems all things, and the One who sustains all things know that “hope” trumps “waiting” every time.  Let our “waiting” be, rather, a time of patient and confident “hoping,” so that whether this Christmas is simply a time of commemorating the Christ Child’s birth into our lives thousands of years ago, or it is the actual coming again of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we will be prepared.  May we wait and watch with hope in our hearts.

Amen.

(1) “Interview: Bazaar Mind, Cathedral Mind” in Reflections: Yale Divinity School, iBelieve: Facing The New Media Explosion, Fall 2011, p. 12

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